Sunday, January 17, 2010

A poor prison plan for California

L.A. Time's OpEd entitled "A poor prison plan for California" (January 17th, 2010) does not take note of one major reason that researchers would have trouble establishing the superiority of public prisons relative to private prisons, even in the presence of such a relationship: private prisons will generally, if not always, replace failing or poorly run public prisons--necessarily, then, it will be difficult to find public prisons with which to properly compare these private replacements.

Studies on whether rent-a-reformatories are cheaper for taxpayers than government-run prisons have had conflicting results, largely because the data are hard to compare. Opinions also differ widely on whether private prisons, which tend to have lower guard-to-inmate ratios than public lockups, experience more violence. It's safe to say that if differences exist, they aren't very big.

Of course, private prisons are often established only where public prisons fail, or are on an unsustainable cost path. This will generally mean that when a private prison is built in a state, those public prisons that remain were already preforming better than the public prison that was replaced. Similarly, cross-state comparisons will suffer from the problem that states with private prisons were likely in a worse starting condition than states that have maintained public prisons only. Again, if the worst prisons in a state are replaced with privately-run prisons, then a zero difference between the new private prison and the remaining public prison is likely evidence of private success. This is because had the worst prisons remained public, they would (presumably) continue to do worse than the rest of the prisons in the state.


    Even if one does not ask or pretends not to see the rope and the flashing red flag draped around the philosophical question standing solemnly at attention in the middle of the room, it remains apparent that the mere presence of a private “for profit” driven prison business in our country undermines the U.S Constitution and subsequently the credibility of the American criminal justice system. In fact, until all private prisons in America have been abolished and outlawed, “the promise” of fairness and justice at every level of this country’s judicial system will remain unattainable. We must restore the principles and the vacant promise of our judicial system. Our government cannot continue to "job-out" its obligation and neglect its duty to the individuals confined in the correctional and rehabilitation facilities throughout this nation, nor can it ignore the will of the people that it was designed to serve and protect. There is urgent need for the good people of this country to emerge from the shadows of indifference, apathy, cynicism, fear, and those other dark places that we migrate to when we are overwhelmed by frustration and the loss of hope. My hope is that you will support the National Public Service Council to Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) with a show of solidarity by signing "The Single Voice Petition"

    Please visit our website for further information:

    –Ahma Daeus
    "Practicing Humanity Without A License"…

  2. Thank you for your comment. Corrections eschews normative (moral) economics and embraces positive (factual) economics.

    Your point seems to be that

    1) Having profit-maximizing businesses run prisons undermines fairness in the judicial system.

    2) Government hiring private business to do its job is neglect.

    3) People need to forego a set of emotions that you advocate.

    The responses of Corrections follow:

    1) Corrections sees this as a possibility, but similar arguments might be made about people who construct prisons. Corrections absolutely agrees that it is feasible for private prisons to encourage recidivism, which in turn makes them money. Indeed, if there is a "learning-by-doing" mechanism in prison, we might expect them to optimize future revenues by optimal mixes of prisoners who incite one another to future crimes.

    However, the solution to this appears to be quite clear: link incentives future individual criminal recidivism rates. Insofar as it is possible for private prisons to prevent future criminal activity cost effectively, they should. This appears to Corrections to be a reasonable resolution to your first issue.

    2) Insofar as your point is normative, Corrections can't comment. It does not appear, however, that the government hiring private firms to do its job is neglect. Indeed, one might posit that to the extent that they can hire a private firm to do their job better than them, they are committing quite the reverse of neglect, and represents optimizing behavior.

    3) Corrections is inclined to see states of mind as endogenous to one's previous choices. Insofar as there are network externalities to emotions (positive or negative) it makes sense to encourage everyone at once. The academic paper “Industrialization and the Big Push,” with Andrei Shleifer and Robert Vishny, Journal of Political Economy 97 (October 1989): 1003-1026 gives an example of how we might expect a two-equilibrium model requiring "group movement." (Corrections would link the paper with the following mapping: feelings positive emotions is comparable with the industrialization of an industry, individuals are comparable with the paper's industries, and your advocating everyone to change at once is analogous to its noting that group industrialization may provide multiple equilibria).

    With that sort of network-externality in mind, we might expect your advocating everyone to consume positive emotions at once as possibly sensible.

    As an aside, Corrections sees private industry as vastly more competent than government in general. Yes, of course markets get things wrong sometimes, but government solutions are often vastly worse than the problem they attempt to solve. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: Capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the others that have been tried. This extends to our view of government solutions, as you advocate, over private entrepreneurial solutions.

  3. Whether one makes a profit incarcerating someone or loses money incarcerating someone does not bear at all either on the experience of the incarcerated person or the experience of the victim(s) the incarcerated person harmed or of society. What actually matters in the real world is the quality of the incarceration. That is, is the incarceration conducted in a manner that optimally facilitates the goals on incarceration whether deterrence or rehabilitation or simply protecting society from the criminals themselves. These things should be measured and the better provider selected. In this manner the running of prisons is no different than the out-sourcing of EMT services or street sweeping or payroll or mediation services or any of the other myriad government services that are more cost-effectively and better conducted by more efficient private providers.